27-4, 16-2 Conf

Ohio tops Eastern Michigan behind Kiyanna Black to win MAC title

CLEVELAND -- Her eyes reddened and swollen by tears, Cha Sweeney graciously accepted an award for making the Mid-American Conference all-tournament team.

She and her Eastern Michigan teammates wanted more.

Their inspiring run came up just short.

Kiyanna Black scored 25 points Saturday and Ohio ended the Eagles' touching tournament run following the death of guard Shannise Heady by winning the MAC championship 60-44.

The top-seeded Bobcats (27-4) earned their third conference title and the league's automatic NCAA Tournament bid -- the school's first since 1995. Ohio went just 9-21 last season, but second-year coach Bob Boldon has revived a program that won only one conference game two years ago.

Black, who made five 3-pointers in the second half and was named the tourney's MVP, said Boldon came in with enormous goals.

"The first words out of his mouth were `MAC championship," she said. "I'm like, `We gotta win a few games first."

Black missed all three of her 3-point attempts in the first half, but the junior guard from Columbus knocked down four in a three-minute span to help Ohio open a 10-point lead.

"Once the first one went in, I just kept shooting and they kept going in," Black said.

The emotion and tournament schedule finally caught up with Eagles (22-12), who were playing their fifth game in six days and have spent the past six weeks mourning the death of Heady, killed in a car accident Jan. 25, just hours after a win at Toledo.

Sweeney scored 24 for Eastern Michigan, which has kept an empty seat on the bench for Heady. They had a No. 32 patch on their jerseys and each of the Eagles wore T-shirts with No. 32 on the front and "Ready Heady" on the backs during warmups.

She was with them every step of the way. The Eagles even set up a locker for Heady, complete with a box where they left notes to their departed friend.

She lifted them, inspired them, gave them something bigger to play for.

"When you go through something as tragic as we went through, you can either quit or you can fight," Eastern Michigan coach Tory Verdi said, his voice choked with emotion. "We fought and we fought every single day. I'm so proud of our kids. They believed. They became a family."

The Eagles had knocked off No. 3 seed Akron and No. 2 Ball State to reach the final, but they didn't have enough left to tame the Bobcats, who have won 17 of 18.

Ohio focused its defense on slowing down the spunky 5-foot-2 Sweeney, who scored 25 in the semifinals and had captivated the tourney with her non-stop motor. However, she made only 7 of 25 shots in the title game as the Bobcats did everything possible to slow her drives.

Eastern Michigan scored just 17 after halftime.

Black, too, made a difference in the second half. Her first 3-pointer broke a 30-30 tie and her last one with 4:25 left put the Bobcats up 53-43. Eastern Michigan couldn't get anything to fall and Yamonie Jenkins hit another 3 with 2:06 remaining to end any chance of a comeback.

The Eagles had just returned from their trip to Toledo when Heady, a transfer from Seton Hall who had played well in the win, died along with fellow student Jordan Hopkins, 23. Heady was driving -- less than a mile from the school's basketball arena -- when she lost control and crashed shortly before 1 a.m.

The grief-stricken team dropped its next two games before winning 12 of 14 heading into the MAC final. During their journey, the Eagles said they felt Heady's presence, playing with fearlessness, as if they had a sixth player on the floor.

Heady's spirit carried the Eagles for weeks, and she was with them from the start against Ohio.

Before the opening tip, the Eagles huddled at mid-court and held Heady's jersey high above their heads. The day didn't end with them cutting down nets or hoisting trophies but consoling each other in the locker room where tears flowed freely.

"I would be lying if I told you this wasn't hard," Verdi said. "It has been hard. It has been taxing, but I'm extremely proud of what we accomplished. You go back six weeks and I'm sure everybody never thought we'd be here."

Even Ohio's players were moved by Eastern Michigan's triumph.

"Losing a player, losing a teammate, I can't imagine going through that," said Bobcats guard Miriah Byard. "You could really tell that they were playing for her. That was great to see."